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Fathers who fail costly for families, economies, but dads can bounce back

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 12:23 a.m. MDT

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"Fatherhood failure" comes at an incredible economic cost, its symptoms seen in incarceration rates, teen drug abuse, teen suicide, high numbers of school drop outs, emotional illness, out-of-wedlock births and more. Setting it right is the stuff of how-to books, memoirs, government initiatives, parenting classes and motivational talks.

And some experts say there's nothing less at stake than the future itself.

Men have struggled for hundreds of years with the role of being a guy, a father, a husband, says Tom Watson, author of "Man Shoes" and the father of three boys, ages 17 to 24. A man's role has changed, in part because more women have joined the workforce. "I'm all for that," he says, "but it means our role as men has and is changing and the current economy is stressing it even further."

"Man Shoes" refers to the fact that parents typically buy too-big shoes for children, knowing they will grow into them. Growing up is like that, Watson says. When things go the way they should, young people become responsible adults who are contributors and role models.

"You can see the devastating effect fatherhood absence and fatherhood failure are having in communities," says Gregory W. Slayton, author of "Be a Better Dad Today: Ten Tools Every Father Needs" and a former American diplomat. The book's proceeds are being donated to father-strengthening charities. The father of three boys and a girl, ages 10 to 21, notes that not having a dad around — or having one who's a very poor role model, as his own dad was — means children don't have the examples they need. "That is one of the ways that a generation learns and becomes responsible. We have entire communities where the men are absent or not good role models and it is devastating."

Numbers tell tale

The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse tracks pertinent statistics. "When fathers are involved in the lives of their children," it notes, "especially their education, their children learn more, perform better in school and exhibit healthier behavior. Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact. There are countless ways to be involved in your child's education at all ages."

The organization says children with highly involved fathers have increased mental dexterity, more empathy, less stereotypical views of their gender roles and better self control. They are more curious and better able to solve problems. A father's active involvement with his young children helps language and literacy development. When non-custodial dads are very involved with their kids' learning, those kids are more likely to excel at all grade levels. And when dad doesn't live with his kids but sees them often and plays a big role in their education and lives, three things are more likely: "Fathers paying child support, custodial mothers being more educated and custodial homes not experiencing financial difficulties," says the U.S. Department of Education.

But what if the number of families without fathers keeps growing and if there are, as Slayton suggests, entire communities that lack male role models?

The clearinghouse notes, among the possibilities, crime and imprisonment. More than 2 million American kids have a parent in prison and many more than that have had a parent (most often a father) in jail. Parental incarceration disrupts the lives of children and often leads to forced displacement to different caregivers. The kids are more likely to be in poverty, to see parental substance abuse, perform poorly at school, have mental health and substance abuse issues and exhibit problem behaviors.Slayton's own dad had serious substance abuse issues and abandoned the family. When he became a father himself, Slayton says he had "no concept of what it was to be a good dad. I had a few ideas of what I didn't want to do as a father — drink too much and other stuff." He started paying real attention to fatherhood across five continents, looking at what was effective and what wasn't. And he saw 10 tools that the effective dads practiced, regardless of some cultural variation.

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